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I was reminded recently of an auspicious occasion during my previous life as a surfer in Port Elizabeth.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but it taught me the importance of something fundamental: seeing yourself represented.
Anyone who has visited the Port Elizabeth beachfront will know the city is not blessed with impressive surf. 90% of the time, waves dribble into the bay around the corner from Cape Recife, the point a kind of gatekeeper ensuring that nothing taller than waist-high arrives at Pollok Beach to alarm the locals.
Port Elizabeth could never dream of competing with established surf locations like Durban, Cape Town, East London, or even George. We are also-rans in the surfing world.
However, despite our rather dismal surfing waves, the city does host a healthy and enthusiastic surfing community. In the 1980s, most of us had grown up surfing mushy, knee-high dribblers, but with no shortage of enjoyment.
Our group belonged to a surf club called Club Fence. It was named for the spot we frequented, by the Port Elizabeth harbour wall, where there had once been a nearby fence. The Fence is home to a fun, left-hand peak wave, which sometimes even generates some short tube rides.
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There was a crew of about 50 of us lighties, screaming down to the Fence every day after school, to ride those sweet little tubes at the best surf spot in our deeply unglamorous surfing town.
One year, the older guys in our club showed some marvellous initiative, and staged a surfing competition. And not just any old surfing competition.
The Fence Masters was to be a proper surfing event, with prizes significant enough to attract some of the big names in South African surfing. As the event approached, we heard that the mighty Dave Malherbe, SA surfing champ, would be coming to compete in the Fence Masters.
With any luck, the results would even make the next issue of Zigzag, SA’s iconic surfing magazine.
The event itself was PE-style down to its sandblasted, windblown earholes. For three days, our small group of surfers, and a few close friends, huddled at the corner of Kings Beach by the harbour wall, tenaciously running through the various rounds of the competition. A series of 15-minute heats were held as local wannabes tried their luck against some of SA’s most famous surfers.
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But not all of us were wannabes. One of our mates was actually brilliant. Philip Playdon was the guy’s name. He was one of those natural talents who simply stand out in their particular sport. He was great, where we were maybe good in flashes once or twice, if we caught the right wave.
Off-the-lips, re-entries, floaters, rail-grab tube rides… All of these came easily to Philip Playdon, and he executed them with style and grace.
Philip also lived across the road from the Fence parking lot, at the Santo Antonio flats in Humewood, I believe. Philip surfed almost every day, so if you had ever surfed the Fence, chances are you knew Philip and you had been impressed by his ability.
Come Fence Masters time, the youthful Philip and not a favourite against the grown men of PE surfing, least of all the pro and semi-pro surfers from all across the country. But he killed it.
Philip showed savvy ingenuity when the waves were small, and then sheer courage as he advanced to the later rounds and the surf became rough and scary.
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The event climaxed on a rainy, overcast Sunday afternoon, with the onshore wind howling in off the sea, the crumbling groundswell conditions sometimes double overhead on the sets. In the final: SA champ Malherbe against 16-year-old local hero Playdon.
Philip did some brave things that day, even being launched over the falls on a massive beast of a wave, trying to make a late drop into the barrel. He later won the Best Wipeout prize for that.
Ultimately, the fairytale finish was not to be. The savvy Malherbe surfed to victory, and Philip came second.
But for the first time in my young life, I had seen the best surfers in the country – the same guys I had seen in the mags and on TV – those guys had come to PE and surfed at my home break. PE might have some of the worst waves in SA, but they were surfable and our little community was worthy of recognition.
The Fence Masters put us on the map.
Sure enough, the results made the next issue of ZigZag, with a pic of the great Malherbe on a wedging left-hand peak. “Herbie wins Fence Masters”, read the headline.
Today, as an adult with my surfing days long behind me, I face challenges different to those of trying to get barrelled at the Fence. As a privileged white person, I am trying to raise a black child, in a world that is slow to transform and accommodate her dreams.
I am forced to try to imagine how she might feel, when she is marginalised, belittled, neglected and overlooked.
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When she is made to feel small as she looks for inspiration and role models in a world that remains white dominated.
But these days, there are victories in her journey as a black girl. Kamala Harris is vice-president of the US. Serena Williams might be the best sportswoman of all time. Black Lives Matter is social currency all across TikTok.
When we load up a movie on Netflix, she sometimes tells me, “I hope there’s a girl in it, and I hope she’s brown!”
I do my best to find movies like that, where I can. Because in my fumbling, white way, I remember my first experience of being acknowledged on the periphery.
I remember the 1988 Fence Masters, when my friend Philip Playdon made the final of the Fence Masters and almost beat the SA champ. And put PE on the surfing map.
We were so proud of you, Philip. You represented us.
My child deserves to feel like that. Every day.
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